TALLAHASSEE, Florida—In August 2018, then-Governor Rick Scott threw what appeared to be a lifeline to the man who desperately wanted to be his successor. Adam Putnam, the baby-faced scion of political and citrus royalty, was the establishment choice going into the GOP primary, but he was struggling to shake an upstart congressman who had made a name for himself on Fox News defending the president in the Russia probe. To have Scott standing beside him for a photo—both men in light blue, button-down shirts, sleeves rolled up in classic Florida-pol style—was the kind of last-minute endorsement that he hoped might salvage his candidacy.
Putnam didn’t know it, most people covering the event didn’t either, but that appearance at a warehouse in the I-4 corridor just outside of Orlando wasn’t really about Putnam and his bid for governor. Indeed, when asked by reporters Scott denied what looked exactly like a political endorsement was an actual endorsement. Scott’s objective, say people close to the former governor, was, at least in part, more strategic and long-term. He was delivering a brush back to Putnam’s opponent Rep. Ron DeSantis, a man 26 years his junior whom Scott’s political team already suspected had national ambitions equal to his own. Scott to this day publicly denies there were underlying motivations, but there is one person who saw them clearly: DeSantis.
“You don’t think that shit was noticed?” said a GOP campaign operative with ties to both DeSantis and Scott. “There was, like, two weeks left in the primary. It didn’t matter what he [Scott] said. It was an endorsement. DeSantis heard it.”
Two years later, Scott is now the junior senator from Florida and DeSantis is sitting in the governor’s office in Tallahassee, having capitalized on an endorsement from Donald Trump himself to bury Putnam in the primary and squeak to victory in the general election. But if anything, the rivalry between DeSantis and Scott has only intensified. They clashed with unusual bitterness during the transition in early 2019. And for two members of the same party they have shown a conspicuous lack of cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic. All this head-scratching discord has people wondering what is going on?
They’re jockeying to run for president … in 2024.
Yep. In Florida, one historically momentous presidential election is not enough.
“You know how I know Rick Scott wants to run for president? He said that. I have to be careful about specifics, but he has said to me, and for sure has alluded to donors, what is to come.”
—A longtime Republican operative who has worked for Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis
Even as attention focuses on the rapidly intensifying 2020 campaign and the unprecedented complications presented by Covid-19’s double-barreled health crisis and economic catastrophe, there’s another race already in progress. A number of well-known players in the GOP—former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Vice President Mike Pence, among them—are considered leading contenders to succeed Trump should he win a second term. But Florida, which also boasts Senator Marco Rubio (who many expect to try and avenge his 2016 failure) and Rep. Matt Gaetz, a nationally known congressman and huge Trump ally, already looks like a uniquely consequential proving ground for several of the most likely Republican aspirants to the Oval Office. And it is captivating political insiders who see the contours of a still distant contest emerging in dramatic ways.
POLITICO interviewed 20 veterans who have worked formally or informally for both DeSantis or Scott—and in some cases, both. Speaking anonymously to share their candid assessments of the state’s political topography, these insiders reveal that almost every story involving Florida’s statewide politicians is best understood by viewing it through the lens of the 2024 race.
“You know how I know Rick Scott wants to run for president?” said a longtime Republican operative who has worked for both men. “He said that. I have to be careful about specifics, but he has said to me, and for sure has alluded to donors, what is to come.”